Before its time?

The Alpine was born through the desperate need for Chrysler to replace the ageing Simca 1500/1501 in France. As late as 1972, when the project was instigated, there was still no clear pan-European model strategy at Chrysler: the British range consisted of the Imp, Avenger and Hunter, whilst the French operation boasted the 1000, 1100 and 1500. Very little managerial effort seemed to have been expended in taking the logical decision to take the best of both ranges, integrate them and produce a blanket Chrysler-badged range. Shockingly, when the Alpine range's development got underway, Chrysler had been in full control of SIMCA and Rootes for over five years. However, the Alpine did signal a change in direction, even if this policy revision was rather late in the day.

Although what was known as the C6 was developed as a Simca 1500 replacement, and the technical development of the car took place at Poissy in France, the styling was led by Roy Axe's team at Whitley. The new car would become the first in a range of neatly styled "European" cars, a subject close to Roy Axe's heart.

It was a development policy that also paved the way for the Horizon, Tagora and Samba. The one anomaly was the Sunbeam, but that car was only created to stop the Linwood factory from closing, whilst as a bonus establishing Chrysler's presence in the rapidly emerging "Supermini" market. Even then, it still sported the distinctive Roy Axe "family" look.

A new approach

The Simca 1500 may have been an utterly conventional saloon, but the French decided that the best way to replace it would be to evolve an upward expansion of the Simca 1100 concept. Technically, it was still contemporary, despite its 1967 launch date. The C6 would, therefore, be front wheel drive, and would sport a hatchback. The reasoning behind this decision was simple. The French loved hatchbacks unlike in the UK, where there seemed to be a buyer aversion to the format. The Maxi had proved to be a bit of a non-starter, although its packaging probably was not to blame. A larger five-door to match the Renault 16 seemed to be just the thing SIMCA were looking for.

The Alpine/1308 laid bare: this model was shown at the 1975 Paris salon, impressing showgoers with its interior space. (Photo used with permission: www.1307-1308.org)

Raiding the Simca corporate parts-bin, the Poissy designers effectively produced a scaled-up Simca 1100. The C6 was designed around the 1294 and 1442cc versions of the Simca 1100, whilst gearboxes and many suspension components were also shared. Technically, the C6 owed nothing to the ex-Rootes range, even though the original plan had been to produce the car in both Britain and France.

In the beginning of the C6’s development, there were plans to produce a rear wheel drive version for the British and north European markets, with France and southern Europe getting front wheel drive. However, Simca engineers were not happy with this idea and eventually won over their British colleagues to the front wheel drive concept. Further differences of opinion came about the choice of engines. The Simca engineers were reluctant to re-engineer the engine mountings to accept both British and French engines, claiming that to do so would put the launch date back by six months.

In developing the car from a French perspective, however, Chrysler Europe probably compromised the C6's chances in the UK. British buyers at the time were a conservative bunch, and the best-selling cars in the C6's anticipated sector were the Ford Cortina, Morris Marina and Chrysler's own Hillman Avenger. Deciding on developing a range that encompassed a single five-door car, effectively shut Chrysler out of this market. The C6 project was still a long way away from being the pan-European motoring ideal.

Manufacturing-wise, it was however very much a step in the right direction. Production would take place at Poissy and, later, at Ryton as well. That would mean the Avenger could move to Linwood at last, bringing the production of the bodies under the same roof as main assembly. The Hunter would be displaced from Linwood and shunted off to Ireland to see out its remaining days. Why the decision was made not to replace the Avenger at the time of the C6's launch (thereby eliminating one almighty model overlap) could be put down to Chrysler UK wanting to keep the Linwood facility whilst maintaining sales with a tried, tested and relatively young car. It was probably an example of insular decision making, too...

Alpine launched: French enthusiasm, British apathy

Roy Axe proudly sits on the bonnet of his creation: the Alpine may have sold in moderate numbers in the UK, but it was a success in France, and part of this must have been down to its contemporary, crisp styling.

The Chrysler-Simca 1307 and 1308 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 75 with the new "Bienvenue a bord" slogan. They were the first of the "Chrysler-SIMCA" cars, with the Chrysler badge on the bonnet and the Simca badge at the rear. The Chrysler-Simca 1307GLS, 1307S and 1308GT range appeared with transistorized ignition (a first in France). Front disc and rear drum brakes, front wheel drive, rack & pinion steering and 155SRx13 radial-ply tyres were all sound contemporary features. Top speed for the 1307GLS was 94mph.

The new models were initially offered alongside the Simca 1301, by then quite an old design but a justifiable decision bearing in mind that there was no saloon or estate version of the 1307/1308. The 1308GT was refined and rapid, offered with electric windows and had a top speed of 102mph. It was equipped with a 1442 cc (8CV) motor which developed 85hp (DIN) at 5,600 rpm while the 1307 GLS had the same 1294 cc (7CV) engine as the 1100 Special, with 68hp (DIN). In between the two, the 1307 S used the 1294cc engine of the Simca 1100TI, with two carburettors and produced 82hp (DIN) at 6,000 rpm. The 1442cc engine was an enlarged version of the venerable Simca engine used in the 1100. The stroke was increased from the 70mm of the 1294cc to 78mm, while the bore of both engines remained the same, at 76.7mm. A total of 32,836 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308s were produced in France during 1975 – not bad bearing in mind that production only started in September.

The five-door full-size family hatchback: a format that really did not take off until later years with the GM J-Cars (Cavalier II/Ascona C) in 1981 and the Ford Sierra of 1982. By that time, the 1976 Alpine was over the hill...

The 1307/1308 range marked the start of the rapid "Chrysler-isation" process of the Simca range. The original three car range made quite an impact, and although its ex-Simca 1100 front wheel drive platform was seen as quite long-in-the-tooth by some, its layout in that sector of the middle market was still seen as something of a novelty. The slightly more upmarket Renault 16 now had something to fear...

In the UK, reaction at that year's London Motor Show was also very positive. The UK moniker chosen was "Chrysler Alpine", a name that obviously drew on the heritage of the Rootes Group. There were management concerns that the plan to kill the Hillman marque in 1976 would affect sales. However, there was some confusion as to where the Chrysler Alpine was going to fit in the range, and how it would affect Avenger sales... The official line, however, was simple: these cars were complementary, and the older car would remain in production for the foreseeable future. It was a curious situation, and yet again, demonstrated that the lack of a clear model policy would cause buyer confusion. The Alpine was put on sale in Britain in January 1976. Two versions were offered – a 68bhp 1294cc GL and an 85bhp 1442 S. In March 1976, 1,690 Alpines were sold, compared with 2,400 Avengers, 2,000 Hunters and 2,882 Austin Maxi's.

Following the launch flurry, the Alpine went on to endure contrasting fates in the UK and France. On this side of the channel, sales started slowly and remained that way, possibly because the engine and trim options were limited compared with the all-conquering Ford Cortina. For a car that was aimed at a market so fixated on these details, the lack of 1.6- and 2-litre engines was seen as a major handicap. Advertising in the UK played very much to the Alpine's practicality, using the strapline, "The seven-days-a-week car". In national advertising, William Woollard was drafted in to explain why the hatchback was just what we all needed, and that even though its engines were dimensionally challenged, they were equally as capable as its larger-engined rivals. It was not an inspired advertising campaign...

Alpine interior was commodious and smart.

In France, however, the Chrysler-Simca 1308 met a far warmer reception, and immediately started selling in large numbers. In the first twenty days that the car was on the market, 20,000 were ordered by eager French motorists. The new car was pitched at the very heart of the 7/8CV market, where the majority of sales lay, and where there was a dearth of contemporary five-door cars to choose from. The top-of-the-range 1308GT was particularly well received in France, where the combination of lively performance (thanks to 85bhp from 1442cc), practicality and capable chassis were seen as something genuinely new in its class.

The Car of The Year panel agreed, and the 49 strong team of judges from 15 countries duly awarded the Alpine/Simca 1308 the coveted Car of the Year award for 1976. Although the Simca 1307/1308 was commercially very significant in France, it did not enjoy international appeal. Some cynics said that it won by default, thanks to there being little competition that year. One only has to look at the previous (Citroen CX) and next winner (Rover SD1) to see where they were coming from! Even the Car of The Year website is lukewarm in its description: "Produced under Chrysler control, the top of Simca range told the story of scarce investments by mother company in its French subsidiary. Looks were appealing, hatchback layout very practical, room and load area generous. The car also offered driving pleasure, with a safe road behaviour. But push-rod engines neared obsolescence, limiting performance and fuel efficiency. Double denomination corresponds to 1.3 and 1.4 versions of the veteran OHV engines."

Other awards included Scandinavian Car of the Car, courtesy of Norway, Finland and Sweden. Denmark and Belgium also gave it their Car of the Year awards.

At the start of 1976, production at the Poissy plant was running at 900 units a day – still not enough to satisfy demand. On April 2nd, 1976, the 100,000th Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 rolled off the French production line. Production increased from May to 1,050 a day and on November 16th the 250,000th example was built. In 1976, the Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308 accounted for 7 per cent of total French car sales – more than the Renault 12, Citroen GS, Simca 1100 and Peugeot 304 together!

In France in 1976 the Chrysler-Simca 1307 GLS sold for ff22,920, the 1307 S sold for ff25,120, and the 1308GT sold for ff26,920. By comparison, Simca 1000 prices ranged from ff13,860 to 20,060, whilst the Simca 1100 ranged from ff18,080 to 24,200. The veteran Simca 1301 Special sedan could still be bought for ff20,560 while the unloved Chrysler 160 range tried to sell for ff24,610 to 28,740. A total of 218,126 Chrysler-Simca 1307/1308’s were produced during 1976; it was the marque’s most popular model.

Success in France continued into 1977 even with price increases across the board. The 1307 GLS sold for ff25,570, the 1307 S for ff28,290 and the 1308GT for ff30,300. However, a total of 258,195 1307/1308’s were produced in 1977. The Chrysler Simca 1308S was introduced in January 1978. It had the finish and features of the 1307 S, but with the drivetrain of the 1308 GT. For 1978, the 1307 GLS sold for ff26,980, the 1307 S for ff29,950, the 1308 GT for ff32,100 and the new 1308 S for ff30,350. However, the car’s popularity was starting to wane – just 156,875 1307/1308’s were produced in 1978, although to a certain extent the new Horizon had stolen sales from its older and bigger sister. Indeed, Horizon production in its first full year exceeded that of the 1307/1308!

By 1979, Chrysler-France held an 11 per cent share of the French market. The Chrysler-Simca 1309SX Automatique debuted for 1979. Although the 9 at the end of the name was meant to indicate that it was a 9CV vehicle, new French tax laws took effect at the same time and this car was actually considered 8CV. It had a new 1592cc engine created by stretching even further the original Simca 1118cc engine! The new engine produced 88hp (DIN) at 5400 rpm and could hit 102 mph. In March 1979, the limited edition 1308 Jubilee appeared. It featured a two-tone paint job and body coloured bumpers. The glass was tinted, the front windows electric, the upholstery velour and the wheels light alloy. The inflation ridden seventies showed in the steadily rising cost of motoring. In 1979, the 1307GLS sold for ff29,600, the 1307S for 32,900, the 1308GT for ff35,200 and the 1309SX for ff41,650. The limited edition Jubilee sold for ff39,950. A total of 112,966 1307/1308/1309’s were produced in 1979, continuing the slide that had started in the previous year.

Trouble in England...

During this time, the British end of the Chrysler Europe operation went through extremely hard times. The British plants survived thanks only to a major injection of government cash, a condition of which was that production of the Alpine should start at the Ryton factory near Coventry. The original plan to build the car in both countries had been abandoned as a result of Chrysler UK’s shrinking market share and the American management were sick to death of the endless strikes and stoppages that plagued the British factories.

In August 1976, the first Coventry-built Alpines had rolled off the line at Coventry; and allied with local production of its engines, UK content of the Alpine was about 50 per cent. In many ways, the Alpine was more of a domestic choice than the Ford Cortina or the Vauxhall Cavalier (many were imported from Europe at this time to compensate for strike-bound UK plants) and yet it continued to fail to capture the public's imagination. The launch of a luxurious Alpine GLS in September 1976 failed to awaken the market’s interest. In September 1977, the option of the 1442cc engine was added to the GL option list and in December 1978 LS 1300 and 1442 models joined the price list. The S model was dropped at this time.

The range was extended, like its French counterpart, over the next couple of years to embrace the 1592cc version of the Alpine's ageing pushrod engine, but it was Chrysler's own problems in the USA that affected the Alpine/1308's destiny from this point onwards.

Enter Peugeot, exit Chrysler

Talbot Solara was launched in the UK in March 1980, and represented a logical extension of the Alpine range for the conservative Brits... (Photograph: MOTOR magazine)

Chrysler in the USA was in deep trouble, and had been since 1976. Falling sales and mounting losses forced Chrysler into a policy of consolidation. The European operation was outside of its core business, and thanks to the failure to arrest a falling market share in the UK, Detroit made the decision to shed Chrysler Europe. Even though the SIMCA 1307/1308 range had been expanded to encompass the new 1592cc 1309 derivative, production rapidly began to slide. The introduction of the Renault 20, Renault 18 and Peugeot 305, had adversely affected sales of the Chrysler-Simca range in France, whilst the Ford-BL-Vauxhall stranglehold of the fleet market did not allow Chrysler to capitalise on the qualities of the Alpine in the UK. Public perception was not helped by Chrysler's well-publicised financial problems, which put further downward pressure on sales.

Following considerable pressure from the French Government, at the end of 1978, Peugeot agreed to take Chrysler's European burden away, creating for itself a huge logistical nightmare. Following the re-branding of Chrysler's existing model range (PSA made the announcement in July 1979 that "Chrysler Europe shall become the Talbot Groupe and that all Chrysler-Simca models would become Talbot-Simcas"), Peugeot began work on untangling its product-planning dilemma. In the case of the Alpine/1308 range, the 1979 cars were renamed the Talbot-Simca 1510 in France and Talbot Alpine in the UK. Both proudly wore the Talbot "T" badge prominently on its radiator grille and in France the Simca badge on the rear hatch.

At the end of 1979, the Alpine received its first facelift. This incorporated new trim/colour combinations and a stylish "lean back" nose which gave the range a much more modern appearance, and it was hoped that sales would take an upward turn. Certainly, Talbot's range was finally beginning to look like an Anglo-French family, thanks to the shared "faces" of the Sunbeam, Horizon and Alpine/1510. This facelift would also pave the way for the first new body variation, one that it was hoped would finally allow the range to make a proper impact in the UK.

The 1980 Alpine range for Britain was launched in January 1980, complete with the new grille. Choice was extended to encompass a 66bhp 1300 LS, 1500 LS, GL and GLS models, all producing 85bhp. There was also a top of the line 1600SX with a standard three speed automatic gearbox.

...and here are the two cars that the Talbot Solara had to beat: the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier. The Solara looked more contemporary, and offered advantages over its established rivals, but its tappety engine and hit-and-miss marketing campaign meant that with the Solara, Talbot still did not have the armoury to break the stranglehold of the established "big two". (Photograph: WHAT CAR? magazine)

In April 1980, Talbot unveiled the Chrysler-planned Solara, a four door, three box version of the Alpine/1510, which had been conceived originally to replace the Chrysler 180. At 170-inches it was 3-inches longer than the Alpine with a floor pan modified aft of the rear seats to accommodate a huge boot and a whole half inch more rear legroom than the hatchback! Sporting the new, sleeker, front end and available in some appealing colours, the new car was not short of showroom appeal. Without doubt, the Roy Axe design translated very well, and managed to look modern some five years after the launch of the original car. Available in 1.3- and 1.6-litre form in the UK and (1.4- and 1.6-litre form in France), the Solara was pitched right at the heart of the company car sector, thanks to its competitive pricing. However, the road testers were less than convinced by the overall competence of the Solara making some very unflattering remarks about its pushrod engine. Despite its good looks, it did not score too well when lined up against the Cortina and Cavalier.

The end of the line for Simca

The Talbot Groupe did not last long - formed in 1980, it was disbanded only a few months later. With its demise, went any real hope of the marque continuing under Peugeot, given the profusion of overlapping model ranges.

In July 1980, the Simca name was abandoned completely in favour of the Talbot name. At the end of 1980 Jean-Paul Pareyre, President of Direction for Groupe PSA announced that the commercial resources of Talbot and Peugeot would be brought together. In France, this translated into a decision to abandon between 1981 and 1983 75 per cent of the country’s 488 Talbot showrooms.

In 1980, a total of 47,304 1510’s and 69,226 Solara’s were produced in France. It seemed as if the Solara, instead of increasing net Talbot sales, simply poached hatchback customers! The Talbot-Simca 1510LS (1294cc) sold for ff33,950, the 1510GL (1442cc) for ff37,200, the 1510GLS (1442cc) for ff40,600 and the 1510SX Automatique (1592cc) for ff46,200. The Talbot-Simca Solara LS (1442cc) sold for ff36,600, the Solara GL (1442cc) for ff39,600, the Solara GLS (1592cc) for ff43,600, the Solara SX (Citroen 5 Speed Gearbox– the same as used in the Citroen BX) (1592cc) for ff46,750 and the Solara SX Automatique for ff48,750.

The Simca name was finally dropped from all models in 1981 and only the Talbot name remained on the Talbot 1510 and the Talbot Solara. The factory at Poissy was restructured with the loss of 4,000 employees. The result was a loss of French public faith and confidence in the Talbot marque replicating the situation that had dogged the brand in Britain following the closure of the Linwood plant in 1981.

The limited series 1510 Executive was introduced to France in March 1981 with the SX motor and 5-speed transmission. It featured a bronze metallic paint job with matching light alloy wheels. A similar car was introduced in Britain at the same time – a manual transmission version of the existing 1600SX. A total of 18,122 1510’s and 42,387 Solara’s were produced in 1981. French production fell further in 1982 to 10,327 1510’s and 33,281 Solaras.

In Britain, a half-hearted attempt was made in September 1981 to ginger up sales. The 1500 LS gained extra kit and two 89bhp 1600 models – the GL and GLS – were introduced. The GLS gained a five speed gearbox as standard. In March 1982, an old Rootes model name was revived with the limited edition 1600 Arrow version of the Alpine with matt black trim and very little else! Series Two models were launched in Britain in October 1982 – the new range was made up of LE, LS, GL and GLS trim levels and a choice of 1300 and 1600 89bhp engines. Across the Channel, the last of the French Talbot 1510's was produced in the spring of 1983. The limited edition Solara Pullman and Solara Executive were introduced in 1983. They featured tinted glass, velour upholstery, light alloy wheels, and metallic paint (two-tone on the Pullman). France produced a total of 26,892 Solara’s in 1983; this fell dramatically to 7,704 in 1984.

A 1981 Talbot Alpine SX resplendent with its metallic paint and alloy wheels. It also sported a natty trip computer ("Ordinateur de bord" as its evocatively called in French) and cruise control.

A missed opportunity

Where does that leave the Alpine/Solara in the annals of history? It was handsome, quite advanced in its specification (if not execution - that engine really did put off many buyers, and the lack of anti-rust protection was truly shocking) and predicted the popularity of the hatchback in the upper-middle market by about a decade. However, it was developed on a budget, which harmed refinement, and then became overshadowed by the politics surrounding the company that built it.

This atmosphere of turmoil was reflected in the generally poor build quality and unreliability of the range. Motor magazine’s experiences after running one of the first Alpines for 20,000 miles did not auger well. The car’s first keeper, journalist Rex Greenslade: “was glad to see the back of it”.

The car was also hampered in an increasingly aspirant market place by its limited engine choice. The biggest engine offered was 1592cc, whereas all its rivals could stretch to at least a two litre variant. The 1600SX top of the range models really suffered from this as their price pitched them right in the heart of a market dominated by much bigger rivals. Motor magazine’s road test of the Alpine 1600SX noted that all the standard kit of the SX was not enough when its price put it up against such cars as the Princess 2200HLS, Ford Granada 2300GL and the Cortina 2300 Ghia – all of which had six cylinder engines!

The Solara and Alpine had the potential to clean up in the UK, but sadly did not. A lack of product development exacerbated the impact of a cut price design, based on a sound but ageing car.

With thanks to Andy Thompson for his significant input into this story.

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